On cooking on an open pit: “Well it’s kind of bad on my eyes sometimes, but I guess I’ve been doing it for so long so I just done learned to deal with it. I cry every once in a while but [Laughs]—I cry every once in a while but that’s just how I make my living, so I just go ahead on.” – Helen Turner
Helen Turner’s joint is one of the smokiest barbecue spots around. Located a mile off tiny Brownsville’s town-center, Mrs. Turner cooks on an open pit; a simple, yet effective operation: bricks, metal fencing, hot coals, plenty of smoke, and meat. It is all contained within a screened-in back porch resulting in billows of woody smoke. She admits that the fumes make her cry sometimes.
A long-time barbecue employee of the present location’s various incarnations, Helen seized the opportunity to make the business her own back in 1996. She is one of only a handful of female pit-cooks in the country.
We first visited Helen’s Bar-B-Q in 2003 as part of our initial foray into documenting rural Tennessee ‘cue. Visit the original Helen’s Bar-B-Q.
What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Helen Turner
Rien T. Fertel: This is Rien Fertel for the Southern Foodways Alliance. I am on the Barbecue Trail in Brownsville, Tennessee. It is July 17, 2008, a Thursday. I’m at Helen’s Barbecue; I’m with Mrs. Helen Turner at 1016 North Washington Avenue in Brownsville. Mrs. Turner can you please introduce yourself and your birth date, please?
Helen Turner: Okay; I’m Helen Turner at Helen’s Barbecue. Birthday is July 25, 1955.
And for how long have you had this barbecue restaurant?
Well I’ve been in business now for 12 years.
Okay; and as I understand you—before those 12 years this was a barbecue shop and you worked here. Can you talk a bit about that?
Well I worked for Curly and Lynn about 15 years and then I quit, took a factory job; it was not so good. And then I—they sold to a guy called Dewitt Foster and then I started working for him. And then he gave it up and that’s how I ended up in business. He turned it over to me.
And what year did you start working for them?
Hmm; what year—that’s a long ways to go back. [Laughs] Let me see; I think I started working for them in I’m going to say ’80—in ’81—’82.
Okay; so [after a break] you came back to work here with Dewitt Foster?
Yeah; after Dewitt Foster bought it from the—Curly and Lynn, he called me ‘cause I was working in Covington, and he called me and asked me to come back and work ‘cause—to make the barbecue sauce ‘cause he didn’t know how to make the barbecue sauce. So he wanted me to make the barbecue sauce for him. So I ended up coming back and he asked me did I want to be a partner? So I told him yeah; I’d be a partner. And then he’s you know he’s kind of old; he was probably about 80-something and then he said well I’m just too old for the business. Do you want it? And I go like yeah; I’ll take it. And so that’s how I ended up with the barbecue business.
The process of the barbecue that you make here, does it go all the way back to the original owners?
It goes all the way back, like cooking it pit style. They—that’s what they started off doing.
Can you describe how you cook—well what cuts of pig do you cook and how—how do you cook it? Can you tell us a bit of the process?
Okay; well what I do, I cook the shoulders. I don't do the hams; I do the shoulders and I cook them on an outside pit with hickory and oak wood burned down to the coals and I use the coals to cook with.
And so we’ll have some good pictures but you have the fire pit where you make the goals right across from the barbecue pit and you just—it’s really easy. You just shovel back and forth.
The room it’s—you know it’s kind of a screened porch kind of room. It’s really, really smoky and it burns, you know, the eyes and the lungs. Can you tell me how you stand it?
Well it’s kind of bad on my eyes sometimes, but I guess I’ve been doing it for so long so I just done learned to deal with it. I cry every once in a while but [Laughs]—I cry every once in a while but that’s just how I make my living, so I just go ahead on.
Do you season [the shoulders] before you put them on?
No; I do not season them. I don't put nothing on them. I just clean them and put them on the pits.
Why do you think some people season shoulders or hams and some people don't? What do you think the—the difference is or what does it do to the meat?
To me, the way I cook if I season them it would burn ‘cause you know you just can't put barbecue sauce on the open pit and just put them on there and they be looking like they’re looking now like you saw them. They’ll be all burnt and you know dark. So I’d rather not season anything I cook; let people season their own food.
How many sauces do you have?
How many sauces do I have—just two, a hot and a mild.
And can you describe them without giving secrets away?
Well is it—is it—are they—?
I can't describe the sauce without giving the secret away.
But would you describe it as sweet or tomato(ey)?
Well no; I just describe it as sweet sauce and hot sauce. That’s about all I can tell you about the sauce. [Laughs]
Okay; so we had to take a break, so—so you could serve two customers. It’s not even 10:00; it’s 9:45 and they came in for barbecue. How often do people eat barbecue for breakfast?
If I open at 7:00 they will eat it for breakfast. I don't care; if they see the doors open they come in for barbecue.
And—wow; and do they eat pork or bologna—everything?
They eat pork, bologna, and everything—whatever I got hot that’s what they eat.
So was it tough or is it tough being a—a woman Pit Master? There’s not many of you out there.
I know; it’s kind of tough, you know, because I have to do all the work. But I’ve learned to manage it pretty good. I don't get in no hurry; I just do it to my—you know, my advantage and I don't have any problems. But I like what I do though. I guess you can tell. [Laughs]
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.